What Do New Starters Need to Know?
by Louise Harnby
Like many of my fellow editorial business owners, I’m often approached by potential new entrants to the field who want advice about getting started. Often, the first question a newbie asks is: “What do I need to know?” It’s a tough one because it’s almost impossibly vague and doesn’t tell the editorial pro anything about their enquirer’s previous career, educational qualifications, skill sets, and target markets, knowledge of which is essential if one is going to hand out any substantive advice.
What someone “needs to know” will depend on a number of factors; so, instead of telling them they must read X or Y, I ask these questions:
- Which services are you interested in providing (e.g., structural, copy-editing, proofreading)?
- What’s your educational background?
- Have you just graduated or do you have work experience, and, if so, in what field?
- Are you prepared to use your education/career background as a way to specialize?
- If you specialize, which types of clients could you target?
I try not to assume that my enquirer is from the same place as me, speaks like me, has the same potential clients as me, and spells “colour” like I do (except when the brief tells me to spell it “color”). Centrism, whether from the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere in the world, is useless to the new entrant to the field because it’s based on false assumptions about them and their potential customers.
A Case Study: Social Science “Styles” From an International Perspective
A new entrant to the editing profession from California sends me an e-mail with the answers to questions 1, 2, and 3. Based on these I suggest social science publishers and academics would be good initial target markets. How does my new starter’s California location affect her choice of potential publishers? It’s not clear cut. The online world has knocked down those geographical boundaries; you don’t have to spend a fortune to send page proofs to someone hundreds of miles away; you can email them to someone thousands of miles away for the price of an Internet connection.
And how does my new starter’s location in the United States more broadly affect what she needs to learn in terms of styles and language preferences? Again, it’s not clear cut. I see The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommended as the sole must-have resource so often in online discussions about editorial work that I worry that new entrants may fall into the trap of thinking that this “bible” alone will tell them everything they need to know. Super though it may be, CMOS is not the be all and end all of style guides, because it depends what a client wants and because it depends on the subject matter and country.
The website of California-based publisher SAGE Publications tells us that copy-editors need a thorough knowledge of both the CMOS and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Note that these are core requirements for SAGE’s US book division. If you want to freelance for the US journal division, you’ll need to add the AMA Manual of Style and The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers to your reading list. (Also worth noting is that not all publishers want the most current version of these manuals used.)
But why stop there? If my new starter can get work with SAGE in California, might it not be sensible to consider tapping its sister office in London? But in that case, our newbie will also need familiarity with New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and Butcher’s Copyediting.
Or what if our new starter decides to target social science academics who, like her, are based in the US? Will those academics all be writing books for US publishers? Will they submit articles only to American journals? Of course not. It’s just as likely that an eminent Boston-based scholar will submit to the European Journal of Political Research as to the American Political Science Review, Scandinavian Political Studies, or the Canadian Journal of Political Science.
How will this impact on what our newbie needs to know? Will it be “behavior” or “behaviour”? Will a comma in a sentence come before a closing quotation, or after? Will “decision-making” lose its hyphen? “Organize” or “organise”? Spaced parenthetical en rules or closed-up em rules? The important point is that where our clients live doesn’t determine where they publish or the location of their intended readership.
Given that the editorial freelancing market is competitive, it makes sense to exploit the most obvious opportunities. In the Internet Age, the physical barriers are gone. The only barrier to exploring an international work stream is an inability to appreciate that language conventions and preferences differ according to client (whether that be a particular publisher, a particular independent author, a particular journal), not according to one, and only one, globally recognized set of rules. Honestly — such a thing doesn’t exist; it doesn’t even exist within many countries.
Diversity of Geography, Language, and Preferences…
It’s not so much about where we live, but where our clients live and what preferences they have. I live in the UK. I’ve worked with a Swedish fantasy author who wanted to use American terminology but UK spelling with –ize suffixes. I proofread for academic publishers who will ask me for US spelling and “style” for one project, and who then, two weeks later, will send a brief for a new project that asks for something completely different. Regarding reference styles, I’ve proofread law books that used Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA), sociology books that used Harvard, and industrial relations journals that used Vancouver. I’ve worked on research-methods books that were styled according to CMOS, linguistics books that asked for APA, and politics reports that used The Economist style guide. I’ve proofread philosophy books where the style was…let’s just call it “go with the flow.” Many of my publishers have a “house” style, so working for them means reading and learning that.
So, if a new starter asks me what she needs to know, I tell her that she needs to be prepared to familiarize herself with a number of appropriate resources depending on what her clients want. Perhaps it’s CMOS; perhaps it’s not. And even if it is, ONLY knowing this may mean she is seriously restricting the base of clients for whom she can work, the types of material she can work on, and the geographical locations she can explore. I ask her to (a) think about which particular client groups she is most suited to, (b) do some research that will tell her what those clients require, and (c) use that information to inform the decision about which resources to invest in. If someone’s world revolves around CMOS, it’s a smaller world than it needs to be. And if her world is smaller than it needs to be, so are the opportunities she is exploring in a market that’s already very competitive.
One other item to note. CMOS, CSE, APA, AMA, and the like are style guides; they give you guidance on whether, for example, to close up or hyphenate a compound adjective. What they do not do is give you extensive guidance on whether a word is being properly used. Usage manuals, which give that kind of information, are as important as style guides. Using a style guide or a usage manual alone is an invitation to disaster.
Out With Borders and in With Flexibility…
When you’re the owner of an editorial business you need to learn what your clients want you to learn, whether it’s a manual published by Chicago or Oxford, a house brief designed by a team of publisher project managers, a detailed set of guidelines issued by a European NGO, or a short brief issued by an independent author of fiction. Encouraging our new starters to think broadly, globally, and flexibly is essential if we are to guide them effectively towards what they need to know. Pointing them to one set of rules is not only restricting, it’s just plain wrong.
There is, alas, no simple answer to the question “what do I need to know?” Instead, advice that asks our new starters to give careful thought and planning centered around client- and skill-focused research is a good first step. That way, the new entrant to the field learns for himself what resources, tools, and knowledge bases are suitable for him, his potential market, and his particular business model. Language usage, styles, and preferences differ, and our advice needs to reflect that.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.